A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

I felt butterflies, though I was not nervous. It was the same feeling that I remembered having as a kid at the starting line of a 440-yard dash or mile

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

I felt butterflies, though I was not nervous. It was the same feeling that I remembered having as a kid at the starting line of a 440-yard dash or mile

Poetry in Motion: A Writer Takes His Cue From Jazz

Lenard D. Moore in a bookstore with his book, The Geography of Jazz

I felt butterflies, though I was not nervous. It was the same feeling that I remembered having as a kid at the starting line of a 440-yard dash or mile relay. Butterflies meant that I was ready to compete, and on this fall night in 1999, I was onstage inside the dimly lit Durham Armory, about to jam my poetry with a Raleigh-based gospel-jazz band called Best Kept Secret.

Pearly eyes looked at me from the audience; lipsticked lips, red as strawberries. The band hit on a groove, and I was surprised at how easy it was for me to catch the rhythm and blend my voice with the steady drums, talking bass, tinkling keys, and wailing saxophone. I loved it. The mood was right. The scene was right. The crowd responded favorably.

After the performance, I jazzed back to my seat, smiling the whole way, astonished with how good it felt. Notes and chords still tugging at my ears, I thought, This is how I want to read my poetry.

I’d been a fan of jazz for more than two decades. Among my earliest memories of the music is hearing my uncle Earl in Jacksonville, where I grew up, constantly playing Herbie Hancock’s album Feets Don’t Fail Me Now. Not long after that, one of my homeboys, who’d just returned from the Army, walked into my family’s long brown-and-orange house on Piney Green Road one afternoon and told me all about jazz. While stationed in Germany, he’d heard records by North Carolina jazz legends like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

We walked the quarter of a mile over to the home of his brother, who had a reel-to-reel tape machine, and he played me jazz song after jazz song — Trane’s “A Love Supreme,” Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You,” and Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green.” Before we knew it, the minutes zipped by. I headed back home in the muggy night air past the cemetery, tombstones flashing whenever a passing car’s headlights struck them.

When I joined the Army myself shortly afterward, stationed at Fort Eustis in Virginia, and then later in Stuttgart, Germany, I bought LPs on pay days — Earl Klugh, Ronnie Laws, The Crusaders — and listened to them again and again, each day, each month, each year. I began to speak jazz, walk jazz, and become jazz. I was digging that mood — bebopping up sidewalks, styling the black fedora that I called my sky-piece, imagining jazz colors: blue, orange, and purple. So while my performance with Best Kept Secret on that fall night in Durham may have been the first time I’d read my poetry onstage with a band, I felt at home in that setting. It was as natural and normal as breathing.

• • •

I’d written my first “jazz poem” a decade earlier, in 1989. I’d gone to see the pianist Ramsey Lewis perform a concert at Enloe High School in Raleigh, and for the entire two hours, while sitting in the audience, I couldn’t stop scribbling in my notebook. Words spilled out of me: “Fingers flutter across the keys,” I wrote, and “Band members pat their shiny black shoes.” I was trying to capture the feel of the music in Lewis’s songs — in classics like “The ‘In’ Crowd,” which always gets me moving and smiling at the same time.

After the show, I went backstage and told Lewis that I’d written a poem and that I would like to send it to him. He gave me his Chicago address. I sent him a typewritten copy of the poem, which I’d titled “Sunday Evening.” He wrote back to me. I was so excited to receive a letter from him. I still cherish it.

The Geography of Jazz: Poems by Lenard D. Moore

With titles like “Raleigh Jazz Festival, 1986,” “At Duke Chapel,” and “Carolina Miles” Raleigh poet Lenard D. Moore captures the spirit of jazz in words that mimic the rhythm and soul of the music that he so loves. Photography courtesy of Blair

A few years after my performance with Best Kept Secret, I was able to hone my jazz chops with the University of Mount Olive Concert Band. At the time, I was the university’s associate professor of English and poet-in-residence. One day, the band’s director, Dr. William L. Ford, walked into my office and asked me to find some poems about the moon. Instead, I decided to write a series of poems myself and read them along with the group. I loved the feel of the rehearsals, and when we eventually performed the series live in November 2012, I wore a black suit, red shirt, and red-and-black tie. I was elated by the show that night, and nowadays, whenever I do poetry readings, I still wear a suit and tie.

In the ensuing years, I’ve collaborated with the UMO Jazz Band on many other projects, and I’ve loved all of them. I especially liked doing standards: When the group would play Joe Henderson’s version of “Blue Bossa,” I’d perform my poem “Blue Melody.” When they played Miles Davis’s “So What,” I’d perform my poem “Trumpet Groove.” And when they played Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” I’d improvise with them on “At the Train Stop,” one of the poems from my book The Geography of Jazz.

• • •

Since my first poetry reading to jazz music 25 years ago, I’ve performed with bands and individual musicians all across the country, from my hometown in Onslow County to Raleigh, Milwaukee, New York City, and Washington, D.C. I remember one time in Asheville being interviewed on radio station WPVM, which plays a lot of jazz. I read some of my jazz poems, and the DJ played a few songs by four of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived — Simone, Coltrane, Monk, and Max Roach, all born right here in North Carolina.

I love talking about the jazz musicians who come from our state, and there are still so many of them. There’s singer Nnenna Freelon, who now lives in Durham. There’s Eve Cornelius and Chip Crawford, who I’ve seen perform together around the area. And there’s Frankie Alexander, who sings at smaller venues like Irregardless in Raleigh.

Nowadays, when I put on my tan suit, purple tie, and shades, and perform my poetry alongside talented jazz musicians like those in the UMO Jazz Band, I like to think that I, too, have become part of our state’s rich jazz legacy.

At the Train Stop

I imagine the quick hand:
Thelonious Monk waves
at red, orange, yellow leaves
from Raleigh to Rocky Mount.
Alone in this seat,
I peer out the half-window
at the rainbow of faces
bent toward this train
that runs to the irresistible Apple,
determine to imagine Monk
glows like Carolina sun
in cloudless blue sky.
I try so hard to picture him
until his specter hunkers
at the ghost piano, foxfire
on concrete platform.
Now I can hear the tune ‘Misterioso’
float on sunlit air.
If notes were visible,
perhaps they would drift crimson,
shimmer like autumn leaves.
A hunch shudders
into evening, a wordless flight.

— Lenard D. Moore, from The Geography of Jazz

Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curated a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina jazz songs and musicians.

This story was published on Jan 16, 2024

Lenard D. Moore

Lenard D. Moore is the founder and executive director of the Carolina African American Writers Collective and the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Geography of Jazz and A Million Shadows at Noon. He lives in Raleigh.